Beijing: The First Chinese Women’s Congregation Celebrates Its 150th Anniversary

May 21, 2022

The members of the Congregation of St. Joseph, celebrated the 150th anniversary of their order in the Chinese capital. China's first female religious congregation, which went through a period of crisis during Mao's Cultural Revolution, now numbers 49 sisters.

The Congregation was founded by Msgr. Louis-Gabriel Delaplace, Lazarist – Congregation of the Mission – then Archbishop of Beijing. Born on January 21, 1820 in Auxerre (Yonne), he entered the major seminary of Sens in 1837. Before his ordination, he decided to enter the Lazarist seminary in 1842.

Ordained a priest in 1843, he was sent on a mission to the diocese of Tours, then left for China in 1845. He was appointed bishop in partibus of Adrianople and apostolic vicar of Kiang-Si on February 27, 1852, then apostolic vicar of Tchékiang on June 12, 1854, and finally apostolic vicar of northern Tchély on January 21, 1870. He died on May 24, 1884 in Beijing, China.

He founded the first indigenous Chinese women’s religious congregation, the Religious Congregation of St. Joseph in his diocese. During prayer, Bishop Delaplace was inspired by St. Joseph to found a Chinese religious congregation. The proposal was discussed at the First Vatican Council.

After two years of preparation, with the help of the Canossian Sisters, the Congregation of St. Joseph was founded in 1872 in Beijing. The bishop thus sought to allow Chinese Catholic women to participate more in pastoral and missionary activities with the sisters. Originally, the order had sisters mostly from Beijing and the region, but today they come from many Chinese provinces.

In 1941, the congregation reformed its structure, its statutes, and its religious habit. The vow of poverty was added; until then, only the vows of obedience and chastity were obligatory for the sisters. The congregation also arranged for the sisters to devote more time to educational and medical matters, and to other needs of the diocese.

The order went through a difficult period and even closed for thirty years until 1986, due to the strong repression of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary communism, as part of the infamous Cultural Revolution implemented across China. The congregation ended up with only six young sisters from Beijing, but it has grown again with 49 members today.

In the footsteps of their founder, Bishop Delaplace, the sisters have been pursuing their pastoral and missionary commitment since 1872, living life in community. The lay faithful have always been the first concern of the apostolate, and they periodically organize an “Opening Day” to welcome them for the purpose of formation.

Currently, the 49 sisters are active in dioceses, parishes, schools, clinics, and a home for the elderly